DAVID BRINKLEY admits now that the gossip about why he left NBC News after 37 years of faithful service was true: He just could not stand then-NBC News president William J. Small, an ill-tempered fellow who has since left the network. "I never quite put it in these words," says Brinkley, "but implicit in what I told them at NBC was that it was Small or me. I would not work for him. And there was a lot of floundering and a lot of whispered conversations in the hallways and this and that and finally, it came around that Small would stay. Had they said the opposite, I probably would have stayed."

Brinkley, however, is not sure he would have been happier at NBC News even with Small out, because NBC News didn't have anything he wanted to do. ABC News did: a new Sunday morning interview and discussion show called "This Week," which was renamed "This Week With David Brinkley" when he joined the network and which will be, on Sunday, one year old, and looking very healthy.

And so, sitting at his desk in the new ABC News building, does David Brinkley, although without his coat he reveals himself to be the possessor of the good-life paunch that men of his age are perfectly entitled to have. He says he is enjoying himself and doing what he wants and there's no reason not to believe him. However, while he is being interviewed, Brinkley is chaperoned by an ABC News "press representative," as if he were a Hollywood starlet prone to blurting out juicy indiscretions. This they do to a David Brinkley?

An ABC News spokesman said later, "We always sit in on interviews with major anchors or management people." Spokesmen for CBS News and NBC News say they have no such policy. It's a tiny sign that David Brinkley has in a sense moved from the majors to the minors. At ABC News, he does indeed stand out more from the crowd than at NBC, where the crowd was more illustrious. On the other hand, he looks a little lonely over there.

Like Jean-Paul Sartre at a Tupperware party.

He confesses it was difficult to leave NBC News after so many years, 14 of them as co-anchor of the competition-crushing "Huntley-Brinkley Report." Brinkley says, "I shed a few tears. I'm not a crybaby, but I did cry a little. It's like leaving a family."

"This Week," which replaced the atrophied "Issues and Answers," shook up the stuffy old Sunday morning press conference format to such an extent that both NBC and CBS are trying to retool their stodgy Sunday shows, "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," to meet the zesty competition. "This Week" wouldn't be nearly as watchable and engaging as it is without Brinkley, who at 62 still has more intellectual energy and robust skepticism than many people half his age, in broadcast journalism or out of it.

Brinkley is widely considered the best writer of news copy for TV there has ever been. He's a born communicator. He writes that way because he talks that way, in a style countless numbers of would-be Brinkleys from here to Barstow have tried to imitate. "This Week" is David Brinkley's second wind, and his personal professional triumph.

"I'm very happy about the show," he says. "I think when we try to do a story, we have the means to do it better than 'Meet the Press' or 'Face the Nation.' You know, former NBC chairman Julian Goodman, about 10 years ago, called me and said, 'Meet the Press' has gotten to be a terrible bore; what should we do about it?' And I offered some ideas, which they didn't take. Haven't taken yet. It's still the same. You know, it's an old radio program. The style of radio, moved to television. Nothing's changed except the addition of pictures, the velvet curtain, the two airline counters and 'See-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil' sitting behind them. It's terrible. It comes across as if the guest is a witness in a criminal trial, being grilled."

On "This Week," that sort of half-hour ordeal has been replaced by a one-hour news salad. First, there's a background report on the week's guest -- an expendable segment, actually, that brings the show to a dead halt, but then, it hasn't really started yet anyway -- then the guest himself for the interrogation (reporters and guests sit on chairs in a semicircle, not behind "airline counters"), and then, best of all, a freewheeling powwow conducted by Brinkley and featuring such fellow sages as George Will, Tom Wicker, Sander Vanocur and Sam Donaldson. Sam Donaldson? The Pac-Man of television news? How did he get in there?

"He's there because he is combative, because he is aggressive, because he will ask the nasty question," says Brinkley of Donaldson, the ABC White House correspondent thought in some circles to be merely a boor. "We need somebody to do that. I don't want to do it. I just don't like to do it -- maybe a weakness in my personality, one of many. I just don't like to be combative and nasty. He's not nasty, but he is tough. And he will ask the questions I'm reluctant to ask. He asked Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger if he was, in fact, anti-Semitic. I wouldn't have asked him that. Of course, he denied it."

Doesn't he ever wince at some of those tactless Donaldson zingers? "Once in a while." Is it true that some potential guests stay away from "This Week" just because they don't want to become a piece of luggage to be kicked around a cage by Sam? "Well, I'm aware of Sam. I don't know of any particular case. If that happened, I didn't hear about it. People turn us down and maybe that is a stated reason, but I don't know of any particular person who said, 'I'm not coming because of that son of a bitch Donaldson.' "

"This Week" debuted in a hail of technical snafus. That aspect of the program has generally improved since then, although on last week's show, an attempt to interview all five newly elected U.S. senators, there probably were more goofs than on the premiere (it was an over-booked mess, and cross-talk from the control room could be heard on the air). The first outing had a weightier problem; David Stockman, fresh from William Greider's bombshell in The Atlantic magazine, pulled out as guest on Friday night.

"But we did have him later," Brinkley notes, "and he wasn't worth a damn. By then, he'd learned to be so agile that he knew the old trick: When you're asked a question you don't want to answer, you talk around the question. Which is what he did. He didn't show up the first week, and I was angry about it. As it turned out, the program wasn't much good the first week, but had he been there, I'm not sure it would have been much better."

The show quickly improved, so much so that rumors floated about ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge harboring plans of moving it to prime time. "I've read that, but I haven't heard it," Brinkley says. "No one here's said anything about it. Not to me. Where would you put it? I've been on prime time, a news-type program against 'Dallas' on another network "NBC Magazine" and I don't want to take that kind of bath again. Up against entertainment programs, you just drown." Brinkley says "60 Minutes" is a special case that benefits from its "protected" time slot (the FCC lets the networks program four hours of prime time on Sunday nights only if the first is public affairs or children's programming).

Then Brinkley is asked to do the impossible--well, no, just the more or less inevitable. He is asked to defend Roone Arledge.

"I would say in defense of Roone Arledge that he is much more open to new and adventurous and risky ideas than some other news executives I have worked for in my life. He's willing to gamble, roll the dice, spend the money. And if it works, fine. Look at '20/20.' Remember the opening of '20/20'? Probably the greatest disaster in the history of television. I felt sorry for him. I worked for NBC then, I didn't see the program, but I read the reviews and, God, I've never seen a program so savagely torn to pieces. Deservedly, I guess. But he hung in there and worked on it, spent the money, tinkered with it, changed it, and it's fairly successful now. I think others I have worked for would have taken it off the air and licked their wounds and decided what to do next."

This week's edition of "20/20" included interviews with Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, the stars of ABC's "Hart to Hart." Onward and upward with investigative journalism.

As for disasters, Brinkley seemed a part of one during his first election night at ABC, which scored a squeaky victory in the national ratings but which looked a shambles on the air. Brinkley, Ted Koppel and Frank Reynolds all appeared to hate each other; Larry, Moe and Curly got along better. The three newsmen traipsed on each other's lines and traded scowls. A. Craig Copetas reported in TV Guide later that Reynolds had been so miffed at Brinkley's presence--an old diva being upstaged by a celebrated tenor--that Arledge had to step in personally and calm him down.

If election night were tomorrow, would Brinkley do it the same way? No pause. "No." Brinkley says everyone should have been put in the same large room, as at the other networks, "rather than talking to George Will sitting in the next studio through an intercom." The intercoms didn't work, Brinkley says. "I couldn't hear what other people were saying and so, after, say, Max Robinson came on with something from the exit polls, they would say, 'Do you want to ask him a question?' And I would say 'No,' because I didn't know what he had said. And very likely I would have asked him a question about something he had just finished answering and we'd both look like damn fools.

"So, I wasn't very comfortable."

After nearly four decades in Washington, Brinkley has become very comfortable with some of the newsmakers who appear on his program, ostensibly for the purpose of getting the third degree. Brinkley says these people are "sophisticated" enough to know that "when we get on the air, it is an entirely different situation. Bob Strauss, for example, is one of my closest friends in the world. On the air, I call him Mr. Strauss and ask him the nasty questions."

It was on a recent "This Week" featuring Strauss that Brinkley noticed another guest, Lyn Nofziger, was holding an unlit cigar. Brinkley asked him on the air if he didn't want to light it. Nofziger said he did. A lighter was produced, and soon, smoke arose from Nofziger's stogie. This was the kind of little thing only David Brinkley would do.

His years in Washington have also failed to diminish Brinkley's zest for political stories and for politicians, about whom he is cautious and forgiving. "All of my youthful suspicions have been confirmed," he says. "However, I still like politicians. I take them for what they are. They tend to be egocentric, and, when you think about it, who the hell else would get up in a hall full of a thousand people and spend an hour bragging about himself? And saying, 'I am the savior and I can cut taxes and save Social Security' -- all of which are lies -- 'so, vote for me.' Who else could do that? You've got to be ego-driven, inner-directed; you gotta be a little crazy."

The same thing could be said of people who go on television and become news stars. Brinkley wrote in 1974, after the death of Chet Huntley: "I believe the television anchorman becomes famous, not for his power to influence uncritical masses of people, and not for his ability to change the social or political order or to elect a candidate or defeat one. So what is he famous for? Mainly, he is famous for being famous."

Of television news, Brinkley, who once referred on NBC to his profession as a race of "blabbers," says now, "Some of what we do is pretty good. And, I guess it's like, even, the Black Plague; you come to accept it after a while." His sly crocodile smile broadens to a wide grin when he is asked if he looks forward to covering yet another convention, this time for ABC. "Oh, yeah," he says. "Oh, God! I can hardly wait. Hardly wait. I love 'em. They're so crazy, nonsensical, idiotic. I love 'em." Here is a man made for his job, and vice versa. Good night, David.